Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Requiem for a First Draft

Late Friday night, sitting on the floor in front of my coffee table with my laptop in front of me and a bottle of pinot within easy reach, I came to a difficult realization: my novel is not working.

Cue swearing, several more glasses of wine and requisite moping.

It’s frustrating—isn’t it?—to realize that no matter how you tweak and adjust and shift, it just. doesn't. work. I’ve known for at least a week now that my project isn’t quite gelling, but I had held out hope that it was something minor—that I hadn’t quite nailed the voice yet, that the shift from “intro” to “story” just hadn’t happened. I mean, I really liked my first chapter and I felt like some of the dialogue in the second was good. But just before midnight on Friday, I created a new file on my computer titled “Chs. 1-10, Take 2.” Not the way I wanted to start my weekend, let me tell you.

In this case, I feel like I know what the problem is. The heroine isn’t right for the story—she’s a character to tuck away for future projects maybe, but just not the right lens through which this story is meant to be viewed. Since I write mostly in first person, this is not a problem I can correct with any amount of wordsmithing. A non-writer friend naively suggested that I just “change the heroine’s personality.” How silly of him—doesn’t he know that once a character has been birthed, the writer has very little ability to manipulate that character’s actions, let alone their personality? Good characters are complex. They have hometowns, accents and jobs they love/hate/love to hate. Good main characters have, in addition, parental issues and first loves and repressed memories of that day in junior high when they slipped in the cafeteria and the entire school saw their underwear. I can’t believably reshape a fictional character’s psyche any more than my shrink can reach inside my head and reshape mine.

Instead, I’m starting from scratch (as far as heroines are concerned, anyway—I really, really want to salvage that first chapter) and building a new character from the ground up. It was disheartening to scrap those twenty pages, but I feel better now than I have for the last week when I trudged around snapping at people who asked how my writing was going. Now I have a plan, and a direction. That’s way better than this time last week. I may have twenty pages sitting in a “scraps” folder and an unfinished character sketch to write before I can get going on my novel again, but I’ve done the deed—cut off the dead limb, excised the wound and tossed out the bathwater while hopefully saving the baby. Best of all, I’m excited about this project again and believe that it will work, once my brand-new, yet-to-be-constructed heroine is in place

So here’s to a week of new beginnings for us all. May the Muse be kind.


Anonymous Barbi Kremen said...

Oh sweetness! At least you’re writing. I know how disheartening it can be to loose a story. Put it in a drawer, and maybe you can come back to it later. You're doing great. You have a tremendous work ethic. Just keep plugging along and eventually something brilliant will come out.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Joia said...

Well, congratulations on having the courage and the strength to start over. I know this must be terribly discouraging and frustrating in some ways. Still, I believe in your story. I like the premise and I know you can turn it into something amazing. Be my Bodie Thoene for Petersburg, will ya?

And hearing your tale reminded me of a scene from "Emily's Quest" by L.M. Montgomery. I think you've read the book, so I'll risk boring you by quoting the scene here. In it, Emily's family is commenting on the characters in her story and trying to convince her to change their personalities just a bit:

I wish, though, you'd change the colour of Peg Applegath's eyes. I don't like green eyes--never did."

"But I can't change them. They are green," protested Emily.

"Well, then, Abraham Applegath's whiskers," pleaded Cousin Jimmy. "I like Abraham. He's a gay dog. Can't he help his whiskers, Emily?"

"No"--firmly--"he can't."

Why couldn't they understand? Abraham had whiskers--wanted whiskers--was determined to have whiskers. She couldn't change him.

"It's time we remembered that these people have no real existence," rebuked Aunt Elizabeth.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Jana J. Hanson said...

I agree that your work ethic is kick ass! I know I've said this before, but Shirley the Muse needs to come visit me every now and then.

I am very sorry about the manuscript. Moving away from something you hold so dear is hard, and I admire your ability to know when it's not working.

Hang in there!!!

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Tas Jordan said...

Going off of Joia's comment, a quote that Neph introduced to me:

“If you will practice being fictional for a while, you will understand that fictional characters are sometimes more real than people with bodies and heartbeats.”
~Richard Bach, “Illusions”

Your heroine will have her book, and your book will have its heroine. Shame they're not the same one but go you for recognising that and being able to let her go for now.

11:26 PM  
Blogger Melanie Hayden said...

Thanks for the sympathy and encouragement, guys. I'm plugging onward--I'm determined to have my heroine in place by the weekend so I can spend at least a few hours on the rewrite. Also, I've picked up Natasha's Dance again to immerse myself in Petersburg. That should get me in the mood.

2:23 PM  
Blogger jason evans said...

Having to start over is a special kind of pain. Second only to starting over because your hard drive imploded. I definitely feel your pain.

I hope the interview process with your next main character sniffs out any more of those hidden time bombs.

4:38 PM  

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